The Israeli Security Cabinet met in early October for the first time in three months to discuss the threat from Iranian cruise missiles.
That is extraordinary when you consider that Israel is dealing with a constant terrorist threat, is battling Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, operating against Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq and waiting for the next hit from Hezbollah or Iran. With all this on the agenda, you would think it would meet every week.
During the election campaign Benjamin Netanyahu had to flee to an air raid shelter during a campaign event in Ashdod when missiles were fired from Gaza. He later considered launching a major military operation, his officials even approached the election commission to postpone the vote, but he was talked down by the Attorney General who said he had to convene the Security Cabinet to take a formal decision.
The electioneering is over, but the mind games of coalition talks have intensified. During this process, Netanyahu has a surreal home team advantage – he is still running the country.
Netanyahu is Prime Minister and Defence Minister because he formed a 61-seat majority Government in May 2015. That was almost four and a half years ago. His Government broke up in December 2018 when he called an election. That was ten months ago. Israel has not had a full time functioning Government since. Two elections later Netanyahu has failed twice to form a Government, the search goes on, but he is still in charge.
These peculiar circumstances are built into Israel’s proportional representation system that leads to multi-party coalitions that take time to carefully stitch together after an election.
It is normal for Israelis to wait several weeks for a Government to be formed. Israel’s long three month election campaigns – compared to just a few weeks in the UK – result in a five month process, from an election being called to a Government being formed. But never in Israel’s 70-year history has that happened twice in one year. Benjamin Netanyahu may look like a bed-blocker, but he is perfectly entitled to stay in the Prime Minister’s residence until a new coalition is formed.
But what are the consequences of not having a functioning Government?
First on security. Prime Minister and Defence Benjamin Netanyahu is at the apex of all security decisions which are made after advice from the head of the IDF, the Mossad and the Shin Bet, without the need for wider consultations. In this curious limbo period he has immense scope to take operational decisions in the absence of scrutiny from other Government ministers. This puts disproportionate pressure on the non-political public servants to provide a check on his activity and develop strategies to issue wider warnings if they are concerned.
We have already seen two examples of stories in the Israeli media that could have resulted from this deep unease. Firstly, it was reported that the heads of Israeli intelligence were very concerned about Netanyahu’s election promise to annex the Jordan Valley as it was made without proper planning for the destabilising consequences in the West Bank. Secondly, former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, in his first major post-retirement interview bemoaned the loss of ambiguity surrounding reported Israeli attacks on Iranian forces and their allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. His comments were clearly directed at Netanyahu’s public and verbose admissions that Israel had carried out strikes. Eisenkot was mostly worried about the consequences if the comments forced Israel’s enemies to react.
Economists are divided as to the real impact of a lost year for Israeli public administration. The two election days are public holidays so GDP takes a hit. In addition, major policy decisions are not being made, the deficit is increasing as is the urgency of spending cuts and tax increases. Desperately needed infrastructure investment isn’t being agreed. The flip side of this argument is that politicians can’t cook up vanity projects or wasteful schemes and cash handouts to please their political base. There might even be a net saving. But urgent reforms to improve the education system, integrate under-represented groups into the workforce and increase productivity are not being explored.
The outpouring of anger in Arab communities about rising violent crime and ineffective policing is symptomatic of wider problems in policing and criminal justice. The announcement of more police officers and operations to collect firearms are short-term tactics when a functioning Government would devise a long-term strategy for a tragically urgent problem. The internal security Minister Gilad Erdan knows he might not be in that job for much longer and the Police Commissioner is a temporary appointment, hardly a recipe for success.
Circling back to that Security Cabinet meeting, defence commentator Amos Harel believes that, in light of the Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities: “Israel needs to urgently assess its defence and intercept systems, which for years have been focused on a response to high-trajectory weapons (rockets and missiles) and not on the deceptive threat, close to the ground, of cruise missiles and drone attacks.” That sounds serious and only a new Government can allocate the funds to tackle these threats.
The Turkish invasion of Syria is a big win for Assad and his Iranian allies. The US is withdrawing and Russia is bolstering its role as the only regional power broker you can really rely on. Israeli politicians need to assess the consequences with their military and security chiefs and take some decisions.
The gravity of this situation, and the likely establishment of a grand coalition in the weeks ahead, perhaps provide a compelling argument for Benjamin Netanyahu to widen his circle of trust now. The current members of the security cabinet are not fit for purpose. If Netanyahu wants to market a new normal where he and Benny Gantz work together, surely it’s time to revamp the Security Cabinet and invite him into the room when these important security decisions are being made.